On the observance of International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13 under the theme “Step up women and girls - the invisible force of resilience”, the National Office of Disaster Services (NODS) is drawing attention to some of the women and girls who have been involved in disaster management in Antigua and Barbuda.
Many of you might not be aware that the first National Disaster Coordinator was a woman. Following a Cabinet decision, NODS was established in 1984 with Cornelia Michael serving as a single full-time staff and was later appointed Educator in 1990. “A lot has been done not only in Antigua but in the region, she says. As women whether young or old you could be quite involved in disaster preparedness not the immediate response but rehabilitation programmes because you find traumatised children, you have old people, people who are just distraught because they’ve lost everything and they’re not covered by insurance”.
Mrs. Michael is concerned that a lot more effort needs to be made in terms of reducing risks. “Some places have been allowed to be developed for housing and really should not be. Only when one is faced with heavy downpour you realise the area is unsuitable for development”. The Former National Disaster Coordinator believes communities should not leave everything to NODS and says everyone can play a part.
Following the departure of Mrs. Michael and the first Director John DeNully, another woman was placed at the helm of the National Disaster Office in 1999. Patricia Julian served as the second Director until 2006.
Presently, there are 17 District Disaster Coordinators in the country who work on a voluntary basis and nine of those are women. Among the longest-serving co-ordinators are Angella Payne-Maginley, who began working in St John’s Rural East immediately after the passage of Hurricane Luis in 1995, Caona Turner from St Mary’s South, who has been serving for close to 20 years and Jennifer Murray, who started in 1989, 23 years ago, after the passage of Hurricane Hugo. All three women are still actively working in their communities.
Murray says she enjoys being a disaster coordinator although it can be frustrating and challenging at times. “It calls for sacrifice but you get a sense of fulfilment in helping people, you feel useful as if you’re a part of something good that is happening when you go out there and you’re able to help”, she says. One of the many challenges is the unwillingness of individuals to get involved in disaster management at the community level given the fact that they will not be paid. Murray is hoping that there would be a greater interest among residents especially the young people, in disaster management in the communities. She speaks of some other aspects that she would like to see improved. “I would like to see legislation put in place, funding, proper infrastructure in the communities and maintenance of them which would make life a lot easier”.
One of the non-governmental organisations working closely with the National Office of Disaster Services over the years is the St Vincent de Paul Society, the social arm of the Roman Catholic Church. Mary-Rose Knight headed the society as President for the past 35 years. She speaks of the role of the group. “We build up members spiritually and out of that comes the outreach programme. Once you are in need, irrespective of age, race, religion, we will assist. You help people to help themselves and I think I did a good job at that”.
The society runs two main programmes on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church - the Good Shepherd Home for Girls and the St Vincent De Paul Day Centre for Seniors in Ovals with the support of church members and businesses. Society too has major challenges in getting young people to be part of its outreach efforts.
While there are some young people who are gravitating to other interests, two young women are making their mark in disaster management in Antigua and Barbuda. Zameke and Azalia Hoyte, work along with their father Frankie Toppin, the District Disaster Coordinator for St John’s Rural West. Azalia and Zameke, 22 and 19 years respectively are members of the Disaster Committee for the St John’s Rural West District in Antigua. Azalia has been a member for six years while Zameke has been volunteering for four years.
Both young women started out assisting their father with administrative tasks and later saw the need to make an input in their own way – something which they have grown to love. “Young people should get involved. You’re not only helping your community but yourself”, says Azalia. “Disasters happen regularly in the Caribbean. A lot of people live in flood-prone areas and if you want to know how to assist disaster management will show you how to assist”, she says.
The sisters have received training in shelter management and were able to put their training to use during the passage of Tropical Storm Isaac this year. In addition, Azalia has been trained in first aid and Zameke is also hoping to benefit from such training, which she says would be useful to her. The sisters believe every effort should be made to reach young people through education, simulations and the use of technology including social media like Facebook.
The National Office of Disaster Services salutes these and other women and girls who are making their contribution to improve disaster management in Antigua and Barbuda on the occasion of International Day for Disaster Reduction being celebrated on October 13 under the theme “Step up women and girls - the invisible force of resilience”.